John H. Hewett
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
June 3, 2012
OUR GOD IS TOO SMALL
Texts: Isa. 40:21-31; Psalm 139; Rom. 11:33-36
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and made human beings in God’s own image. And, from the beginning, we humans have been reversing the order of creation and fashioning Gods that look and sound just like us. We have wanted a God mighty enough to save, yet small enough to fit in our pockets - an eternal, portable, and always comfortable, Creator.
The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of men and women wanting a God they could touch and see and understand. Their world was full of gods of every shape, size and demeanor. It took them quite awhile to acknowledge only one God, and apparently Yahweh was willing to be patient. All God commanded on the mountain was, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Moses left his people at the bottom of that mountain, and before he could get back down with the Ten Words they’d already made a shiny golden calf to worship. The minute the wandering Jews entered the Promised Land they were captivated by the idols of the Canaanites, so easily displayed on one’s mantel. It would be a constant refrain: “Give us a God we can see. Build us a Temple. Consecrate us a spot.” The Ark of the Covenant became a convenient way to carry God around. When the pagan Philistines captured the Ark in battle, Israel emotionally collapsed. “Our glory has departed!” they moaned. “Our best days are over. God’s presence has left us.”
Israel’s god ruled over a world very different from ours. It was a primitive place populated by witches, demons, cherubim and seraphim, leviathans, talking jackasses claiming to speak for God, (ok, maybe notthat different), burning bushes, flaming chariots, and angels of death. Their earth was a flat cube with four corners, with a shiny dome above, with windows through which God would get up from God’s throne to pour water when the earth got too dry. The sun revolved around this earth and occasionally stood still when Joshua asked it to. In those days, when a man prayed for his wife it took awhile, because he had so many. Women were chattel, property to be bartered, promised and traded. War was hell and divorce was a one-way street. The bloodthirsty Bedouin justice of the desert was so brutal that the Hebrew’slex talionis, the law of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” was hailed as the high water mark of fairness and equity.
Over all this presided a relentlessly male, militaristic, capricious God who dared anyone to question His decisions.
As the years passed and life showed up, the Israelites developed a larger understanding of God. God apparently did not live in Jerusalem, because after they’d been carted off into exile in Babylon, Ezekiel saw a wheel, way up in the middle of the air, and Daniel had dreams, and Nebuchadrezzar saw a fourth man in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. God wasn’t just back home in Judah. God was here, too.
The prophets arrived preaching a larger word about the God who was Lord not only of the Jews but also the Gentiles, a God who had raised up Israel to be, not a lamp unto its own feet, but a light to the nations. This God was not imprisoned in temples or tabernacles, nor could this God be appeased with burnt offerings and sacrifices. When this God poured out God’s Spirit, marvelous things would happen: Sons and daughters would preach. Young people would see visions. Old people would dream dreams. This God required mercy, not sacrifice, Hosea wrote. Keep your burnt offerings. Rend your hearts and not your garments. God is interested in who you are, not the size of your gifts or the purity of your first fruits or the volume of your prayers. God looks on your heart.
And their God got bigger.
Jesus of Nazareth walked out of the wilderness preaching the inbreaking Kingdom of a God they had to stretch to understand. His God valued little children, and women, and the poor. The One Jesus called Abba didn’t hobnob with the rich and famous, but knelt in the dust with the least of these. Abba didn’t execute sinners but forgave them freely as a gift of grace. And this God authorized a public restatement of Holy Scripture. “You have heard of old that it was said unto you,” said Jesus, quoting Moses and the Hebrew Bible, “but I’ve come to tell you something new.”
And their notion of God got larger.
Paul took this gospel even farther. He spoke of transformed human relationships made possible by an enlarged view of God. In a male-dominated culture, he called husbands not merely to own but also to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In a world where slavery was accepted as an economic necessity, he instructed slaveowners to treat their slaves with dignity and mercy. To a movement wary of accepting people who were different in every way, he called Jews to understand that everyone who has faith in Christ is a child of Abraham. For, he said, in Jesus Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. “For we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
And to Peter, who thought he could dip a toe in both pools, eating with Gentiles when he was out of town but reverting to his Jewish exclusivism when he went back home, God said, “Get up, smart guy, and eat your bacon. And don’t call anything I make unclean, or small. If I say it’s kosher, it’s kosher.”
And their concept of God grew and grew.
Why did all this happen? Was it a coincidence? Or was it part of God’s creative, redemptive purpose from the beginning?
It happened because God was patient, willing to wait and gradually reveal the Divine Heart to people like us at the precise moments when our new wineskins were ready to accept the new wine of the gospel. And it’s true today: As we grow and increase in wisdom and knowledge and favor with God and each other, God is able to show us more of God’s true self.
That progressive revelation is still going on.
Consider the new wine we’ve tasted in our own lifetimes. I came to Christ as a white, male Southern Baptist in a church ruled and ordered by white, male Southern Baptists. Every Vacation Bible School class, every choir rehearsal, every Sunday School department was led by a godly woman, everything good we did in missions was named after Annie and Lottie, half the decent hymns in the hymnal were written by women, and two-thirds of the people who showed up on Sunday were women. But women couldn’t be deacons. They couldn’t be ministers. They could be missionaries, but all we’d allow them to do was sew and cook while their husbands did the real gospel work. Until the Holy Spirit of God convicted us that our God was too male, and we decided to get out of God’s way and see what God was doing in the lives of our sisters and mothers and wives and daughters.
If you were here two Sundays ago or listened online, you heard a woman preacher rightly dividing the word of truth. God spoke to us through the Rev. Christy Tatum Williamson. Who among us will deny her call? Who will stand like the unctuous Baptist leader I heard condescend to my friend Molly Marshall: “I don’t know whose voice you heard, little lady, but it wasn’t God’s.”
Today we praise the Lord for opening our eyes to what God is doing in, among and through half the human race. At Myers Park Baptist Church, our daughters and our sons are free to prophesy.
But there is more new wine. Our eyes have been opened to the truth that our God has been, and remains to this day, much too white. I understand that, for I was raised a white, male, Southern Baptist, Christian racist. The little song Lt. Cable sings in South Pacific perfectly describes my rearing:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
Of people whose skins are a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
I learned and used the “N” word early on. I drank from the “Whites Only” water fountains and sat downstairs with my people at the movies. I sat in the “Whites Only” waiting room at the doctor’s office. I told the racial jokes and laughed at all the stereotypes. And I made the tragic mistake of racists everywhere: in order to feel better about myself, I learned to look down at people who were different, who also were consistentlypeople I didn’t even know.
I took in much of my racism at church. I still remember the called business meeting at the First Baptist Church of Palatka, Florida where the elders came together to plot a strategy for what we’d do if black people showed up at the front door of our church. That should have been the shortest meeting in human history. Simple answer: Let them in! Shake their hands, hug their necks, and let them in. But look around you: what M. L. King said 45 years ago remains true. 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American society. In the year of our Lord 2012, fewer than 5% of American churches are even slightly integrated.
Though in many ways our country has made remarkable progress in race relations, it has happened, for the most part, in spite of the church.
Racism gets in your bloodstream. Long after you think the infection has been removed, the antibodies remain. When my eldest son Martin was about two, I took him to the finest department store in St. Louis to have his picture taken with Santa Claus. We got in line with everybody else, not paying a lot of attention to the logistics, and finally it was our turn. We rounded the corner to the special room where Santa was waiting, only to discover that there were two lines and we had gotten in the one for the black Santa. Quickly the elves hustled us out and over to the line for the white Santa, and I, like an idiot, let them do it. We missed a wonderful teachable moment (and a truly memorable picture.)
These days our neglect is more benign. We’re happy for people of color to come to our church. None of us would stand in the church house door to block them. But few of us go out of our way to invite people who are different. They’ve got to get here under their own steam. It’s not that we’re opposed to them, it’s just that we don’t know many of them. And the result is that we come to worship the Lord of the universe mostly with other people who are just like us. Our God is too small.
There is more new wine. In my own lifetime I’ve moved from worshipping a God who was white, and male, Southern Baptist and American, to the Lord of the universe who cares as much about the slaughtered children of Gaza as our own neighborhood children. The tendency for Americans to consider ourselves God’s chosen people confuses patriotism with discipleship. (Have you seen the bumper sticker: You can’t spell Jerusalem without USA!) I love my country, but Jesus died on a cross, not a flagpole, and I have it on good authority that heaven will not be red, white and blue. I love my country, but my citizenship here is temporary. I’m headed for a land that is fairer than day, where all God’s children will come from every corner of the world to sit at table in God’s Kingdom. When we create God in an image which looks remarkably like Uncle Sam, our god is too small.
The latest harvest of new wine has called us to consider those of God’s children who, from their youngest moments, are emotionally and physically attracted to persons of their own gender. The Bible knows nothing of this, for the Bible knows nothing of human genetics or psychosexual development. When the Bible speaks of homosexuality, its only context is perversion, its reference always sinful heterosexuals who, blinded by lust, seek sensuality wherever they can find it.
But sit with a 14-year-old boy some Friday afternoon who is suicidal, because ever since he was old enough to notice, he’s been attracted to boys rather than girls. Or break bread with the emergency room surgeon who has made a lifelong commitment to her partner, another surgeon, both of them Christians, both of them longing to follow Jesus the only way they know how.
And listen for the sounds of old wineskins cracking.
This new wine is being poured all around us. We could go on. And we should. For as we shake off the primitive prejudices and superstitions of a world which no longer exists, God will pour new wine into these wineskins – and into us.
Consider: Not one of us looked under our beds for witches or demons before coming to church this morning. Those of you who’ve been sick did not call the church to schedule an exorcism or have one of the ministers anoint you with oil, you called your doctor. You dressed yourselves without regard for whether your clothing had mixed fabrics. Women are here wearing jewelry and perfume. Men are here wearing accessories and cologne (which is another way of saying jewelry and perfume). This week you won’t think twice about eating bacon, or shrimp, or pork chops – if you do, it will be from fears about your cholesterol and not your theology. If you’ve given birth recently to a little boy and had him circumcised, you did it for reasons other than God’s everlasting covenant.
The latest views from space reveal an earth that’s round, not flat, revolving around a sun that does not move, one tiny speck in one galaxy, part of an infinite universe. And the God we worship is Lord of all that universe, every piece of it, as well as all the other universes we are too small to glimpse.
One great, powerful, mighty, majestic, and incredibly BIG God.
Missing that truth can be theologically fatal. As J. B. Phillips warned us 50 years ago in his instant classic,Your God is Too Small,
Many men and women today are living without any faith in God
at all, not because they are particularly wicked or selfish
or “godless,” but because they have not found with their adult
minds a God big enough to account for life.
Through the history of our redemption, every time our god became too small, guess who showed up blowing new winds of the spirit, calling God’s people to new horizons with the gospel. The same God who told Simon Peter, “Don’t you dare call anything I’ve made unclean.” It makes you wonder – what is the next frontier of God’s bigness we’ve been too small to see?
I’ve lived too long, and been too sure too many times of what God was doing only to be proved publicly and conspicuously wrong, to live another day putting God in a box. My God has routinely been too small. Too white, too male, too Southern, too Baptist, too American, too middle class, too straight, too much like me. Our God is an awesome God, all right. But I have too often tended to want to keep our awesome God right here in my pocket.
I may turn out to be dead wrong. But I am resolved to live the rest of my days, if I make a mistake with the gospel, erring on the side of God’s bigness rather than my smallness. I intend, as long as I have breath, to welcome all whom God welcomes, forgive all whom God forgives, feed all to whom God offers the bread of heaven, redeem all to whom God offers the cup of salvation. If I get only one song to sing, it’s going to be the old Baptist gospel song I learned from my mother’s piano bench as a Sunbeam: “Whosoever will may come.”
We earlier heard the text from Romans from one of the more exalted translations. I leave you with Eugene Peterson’s take on it, a doxology for all God’s children, acredo worth singing, to a great, big, God:
Everything comes from God;
Everything happens through God;
Everything ends up in God.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes.